April 14, 2024

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The only time they’ve seen each other face-to-face in recent months was over burrito bowls.

This feels entirely wrong for Travis and Trevor Etienne, brothers separated by only about an hour’s drive, but also by careers that demand nearly all of their time. Usually, when they are in close proximity, it is within orbit of their mother’s kitchen, where there’s always a real, home-cooked, authentically Cajun meal waiting — smothered pork chops with corn and rice for Travis or turkey necks with mustard greens with ham hock for Trevor. There’s no place the Etienne brothers would rather be than crowded around Donnetta Etienne’s table. But this meetup wasn’t about the food. It was business: a commercial shoot for Chipotle, starring big brother Travis, an emerging NFL star for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and little brother Trevor, an emerging SEC star for the Florida Gators.

The script goes like this: Trevor is running through football drills. Travis is nearby, shouting advice, critiquing each move, timing each step. Trevor responds, again and again, with an exasperated, “Bro?” Then the pair retires to Chipotle, where Trevor places his order — a bowl with chicken, white rice, cheese and lettuce — which Travis immediately compliments as the perfect selection.

It is marketing. It is also a genuine window into their relationship.

Flash back to Trevor’s senior season at Jennings High in 2021. He was coming off a leg injury that required surgery and upended his sophomore campaign. He was tentative, worried about aggravating the injury. Travis was on the sideline for the game.

“Bro?” Travis yelled. “You going to stop playing soft or what?”

Flash back to 2022, Travis’ second season with the Jags. He was having fumble issues, putting the ball on the ground twice in three games. In the locker room before his next contest, Travis picked up his phone and saw a text from his little brother.

“Bro,” it read. “Two hands on the ball.”

This is how it’s been their whole lives. Travis as mentor, Trevor as protégé; Travis as prospect, Trevor as critic. They did it on the playground; on the basketball courts down the road from the house where they grew up; through hundreds of miles of distance between Jennings, Louisiana, and Clemson, South Carolina; and now, in front of the cameras for a burrito company.

They never dreamed they’d be here, Travis said — famous and cameras rolling. But this was part of the plan, a plan to stay true to their roots, to stick together at all costs, and to always look out for each other.

“It’s crazy to see people interested in us, and we’re just being ourselves,” Travis said. “It’s just cool to see where football has taken us.”

HOW FAR HAS football taken the Etienne brothers?

They started out in Jennings, Louisiana — population 9,837 — as big fish in a small pond. It’s the type of place where roots run deep and few roads lead to someplace better.

Sports were Donnetta’s way of keeping her boys away from the seedier elements of town.

“We kind of sheltered them from the drugs and alcohol and gangs,” Donnetta said. “You finish practice and school, you’re tired. So we did a three-sport household for each kid, and that kept them off the streets, kept them rooted and grounded in their books. It was a good formula.”

Travis was a superstar from the first time he touched a football, running for five touchdowns in his first Pee Wee game.

Trevor was the chubby kid who followed in Travis’ footsteps — “the annoying little brother he was always trying to get rid of,” Trevor said.

Trevor is six years younger than Travis. He’s the more outgoing of the two and is eager to speak his mind. Travis is a cutup in small groups of close friends or around Donnetta’s house with family, but in public, he mostly keeps quiet. Trevor, on the other hand, has a ready-made line for all occasions. James Estes, who served as offensive coordinator at Jennings High during both brothers’ time there, remembers Trevor showing up late for practice one day. He watched as Trevor made his way across the practice field, Estes waiting to dress him down.

“Where have you been?” Estes yelled.

Trevor shook his head.

“Coach,” he said, “you won’t believe it. Bigfoot grabbed me, and he stole my car.”

The whole team burst out laughing. How could Estes be mad now?

“You knew he’d been thinking about that for the 20 minutes it had taken him to get to practice,” Estes said.

When he was young, Travis hated having his little brother always in tow. He’d leave the house to play with friends, and Trevor would sneak out behind him, popping out of the shadows at the opportune time to join the older kids.

Eventually, though, Travis saw the advantage of having a teammate with him everywhere he went. Travis was tall and lean and lightning quick and a playground legend around Jennings. Trevor, on the other hand, was small and unassuming, easy to overlook. He was Travis’ secret weapon.

“Everyone always underestimated him, but he was always the best one,” Travis said. “I’d always pick him first, and we’d always win.”

Still, the narrative persisted: There was Travis, and there was Travis’ little brother.

This isn’t a matter of conflict, both men insist. They never cared. But the dynamic had a way of carving out roles for each.

Travis was the trailblazer, the kid who was destined to find his way to someplace beyond Jennings. He had so much natural ability as a runner, he couldn’t fail, but much of his evolution into a well-rounded player came by trial and error. Former Clemson teammate Darien Rencher remembers practices when the Tigers’ staff tried to use Travis as a slot receiver, and he didn’t even know how to get into a stance at the line of scrimmage. It took him years to refine that skill set before he blossomed into one of the better receivers out of the backfield.

Trevor witnessed his share of those practices on visits to Clemson. He got the message loud and clear that, to be a running back in the NFL, he’d need to do more than run.

“Trevor showed up for [a recruiting] camp at Clemson, maybe his sophomore year,” Rencher said, “and he’s out there running legit routes. We joked with Travis, like, dang your little brother learned this way before you did.”

Trevor wasn’t as naturally gifted as his older brother, but the lessons imparted by Travis gave him a road map that allowed him to flourish, too, and, in many ways, blossom into a better all-around player at an earlier age than Travis.

Travis’ success was predestined. Trevor’s success was calculated.

“Trevor had a cheat code,” Rencher said. “He had a front-row seat to just absorb everything Travis might not have even known he was given — all that experience and wisdom and expertise.”

But the rewards flowed in both directions. Knowing his younger brother was watching was always the push Travis needed to keep refining his game and, perhaps more importantly, to take each step away from the field carefully, intentionally. Even his surprising decision to return to Clemson for his senior season, he said, was made in part to show Trevor the value of a degree, of finishing a job once it’s started.

“I feel like it put pressure on him,” Trevor said. “Everything he does is magnified because I’m watching. He had to be his best at every moment to make sure I’m doing the right things.”

Trevor watched, so Travis worked.

Travis succeeded, so Trevor followed.

“They would always compete with each other,” Estes said. “They pushed each other harder than any of us could ever push them.”

It wasn’t by design exactly, but it proved to be the perfect blueprint.

TRAVIS DOMINATED DURING his time at Jennings. He went to college at Clemson, where he won a national title and carved his name into the ACC record books, setting the conference mark for rushing yards and touchdowns, and an NCAA record by scoring a touchdown in 46 career games. Then he was selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. This year, he’s one of just two running backs in the NFL with 500 yards and seven touchdowns through seven games.

Trevor, too, was a star runner at Jennings, where he was arguably a more versatile back than his older brother, even filling in at QB as a senior after the team’s starter was injured. Trevor finished his high school career with nearly 2,500 rushing yards and 34 touchdowns, earning scholarship offers from across the country.

When Travis was at Clemson, Trevor would make the trip from Louisiana every chance he got. He desperately wanted to stay close to his older brother, and the distance back then, he said, actually brought them closer together. It forced them to cherish the time they spent with each other. But Trevor chose Florida not because it was close to his brother’s NFL home, but because it was separate from Travis’ own path. It was a chance for Trevor to strike out on his own, to create a story that was less epilogue to the Travis Etienne story and more an early chapter of the Trevor Etienne journey.

“I told my brother to go wherever you want to go,” Travis said. “But I told him no Clemson. I wanted him to carve out being his own man, and I felt like he was an SEC running back.”

Trevor never chafed at his brother’s long shadow, he said. At home, he was always his own man, Donnetta said. He got “Trevor criticism, not Travis criticism.” But truth is, Trevor liked being compared to Travis. After games at Jennings, he’d text Travis with his stat line, a challenge to big brother to match those numbers on Saturday.

“No matter what I do, I’ll still be his little brother,” Trevor said. “But I looked at it as someone to look up to. Him setting all those records was just pushing me, showing me what could be done.”

For his part, Travis was happy to defer praise. He doesn’t like talking about himself, but get him on the subject of Trevor’s football exploits and he can’t help but gush.

“He’d always make comments that Trevor was actually better than he was,” former Clemson running backs coach Tony Elliott said.

Ultimately, Trevor landed in the SEC, at Florida. Earlier this season, he ran for 173 yards and a touchdown in an upset win over Tennessee. On Saturday, he’ll play against Georgia (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS) in his big brother’s home turf in Jacksonville. In the Gators’ loss there last year, Trevor scored a touchdown.

​​”It was like, ‘I got a touchdown in big bro’s house,'” Donnetta said. “So I’m hoping we get two touchdowns in big bro’s house [this year]. It means everything to him to touch big bro’s end zone.”

IT’S 74 MILES from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville to EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville — “The Swamp to the Bank,” as Donnetta calls her weekly journey — but it’s funny how far that can seem amid the buzz of daily life. Usually, the brothers bridge the distance via the family group text or a home-cooked meal delivered by Donnetta in a cooler.

Donnetta is in Florida now, too. She likes to cook on Wednesdays, knowing it suits Travis’ practice schedule to come by for a meal that night. Travis once noted during a media session at Clemson that he’d added nearly eight pounds in eight days by bingeing on Popeye’s chicken during a visit home for spring break. He loves to eat, and so when Donnetta cooks, he stakes his claim. Travis cleans his plate, then insists on another helping because he knows any leftovers get packed up in the ice box for a trip to Gainesville.

Then Friday, Donnetta arrives at Florida with a meal for Trevor, which always feels a bit light.

“And I tell him it’s because your crybaby brother acts like I give you everything,” Donnetta said. “They’ll be fighting for the meat right out the pot.”

There’s only so much catfish or ribs or chicken-fried steak to go around. That’s worth the fight. But the Etiennes have never viewed success or fame or legacy as a zero-sum game. Living the dream was possible only if both brothers were a part of it.

This is the whole point. Success for the Etiennes isn’t some distant point when their careers are established and their bank accounts flush and their family secured for generations. It’s the journey they’re on, a journey that would be utterly exhausting alone but is instead a genuine adventure together.

There’s a bit of advice Travis once imparted to Trevor that’s always stuck with the younger Etienne: “He told me not to worry about leaving a legacy,” Trevor said, “but to live a legacy.”

But lately, Travis has been giving some thought to getting older. He’ll be 25 in January, a number that puts him in the prime of his life but somehow seems preposterous to him. Last year, he hosted Christmas for the whole family at his house. Donnetta cooked, and they all wore matching pajamas and watched Christmas movies. It was like old times, except that Travis was now the centerpiece — a grown man with a job, a house and a life that his whole family has invested in, too. His friends say he can still act like a kid in the right context, but in that moment, it became clear to him: He’s grown up.

Where did the time go? It’s actually watching Trevor play that makes him feel — not old, per se, but matured. Back at Jennings and at Clemson, he lived in the moment. The journey was one foot in front of the other, with daily calls or texts to Trevor, who mapped each step for later use. Now, Travis sees his brother following that path at Florida, and it’s a bit like a time capsule. It’s only when Trevor does it that Travis’ own journey feels real, that the details sink in and he can remember just how grueling and exhausting and exhilarating it all was.

After they’d finished shooting the commercial, their agent, Sam Leaf Ireifej, called Donnetta at home. On the set, Travis had shed his usually reserved demeanor and was instead cracking jokes and laughing loudly.

“I saw a different side of Travis,” Ireifej said.

Donnetta smiled. She’s heard this before.

“Well, of course,” she told him. “He was with Trevor.”

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